A’s Chris Bassitt fueled by energy drinks, embracing his role and ‘inner weird’

Torri Donley

Chris Bassitt has declared himself the best athlete in the A’s starting rotation, where the title is a topic of debate. So surely his college teammates would have evidence to support this claim. “I’m going to go,” Ryne Romick, Bassitt’s close friend and former bullpen mate at the University of […]

Chris Bassitt has declared himself the best athlete in the A’s starting rotation, where the title is a topic of debate. So surely his college teammates would have evidence to support this claim.

“I’m going to go,” Ryne Romick, Bassitt’s close friend and former bullpen mate at the University of Akron, said instead, “with the most unathletic thing I’ve ever seen him do.”

The scene, Romick said, was the Zips’ weight room. Bassitt, a just-arrived freshman so skinny he “looked like a fungo,” was on a machine for glute-ham raises. The exercise involved securing his feet at a height and lowering forward holding a weight until parallel to the ground. Only, Bassitt missed a step.

“He forgot to lock his feet in and fell face-first into the ground,” recalled Kurt Davidson, another close friend and former Akron catcher.

“Bloody nose all over the weight room,” Romick said.

Of course, Bassitt had finer moments at Akron. A second-team All-Mid-American Conference closer, he was drafted in the 16th round in 2011 by the White Sox and debuted three years later as the fourth Zips player to reach the majors. He also flashed his athleticism on the rec basketball court, where, Romick confirmed: “He can throw down.”

“Windmills and 360s,” Davidson agreed. “Stuff you’re watching in the NBA dunk contest he was able to do in college.”

At first glance, Bassitt, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, might resemble a flurry of gangly levers in his delivery, his glove hand extending almost skyward before winding up inches from the dirt as he releases a pitch. The result, though, can be athletic precision — maybe never more than in the past month, as Bassitt has been one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Oakland Athletics' Chris Bassitt pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning of a baseball game in Oakland, Calif., Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

A stopgap in the A’s rotation when the pandemic-delayed season started in July, Bassitt will lead them into the AL Division Series against Houston. The A’s will start Bassitt in Monday’s Game 1, aiming to seize an early lead in the best-of-five series at Dodger Stadium. In the wild-card round, Bassitt started Game 2 with the A’s facing elimination and held the White Sox, his former team, to one run in seven innings. Over his past five starts, Bassitt has allowed two runs in 33 ⅔ innings, a 0.54 ERA.

After his outing against Chicago, A’s manager Bob Melvin suggested Bassitt had “been waiting for that game his entire life.” But John Bassitt, Chris’ father, said the idea of his son even playing baseball in college, let alone professionally, arose relatively late.

At Genoa Area High School in Ohio, Bassitt was a “ridiculously crazy hustler” — in basketball, as a point guard with a knack for steals, his father said. Bassitt went into his senior year with no offers to play college baseball. That spring, he pitched a game against local power Start High of Toledo and threw a one-hitter.

“That was maybe the very first inkling that maybe something could happen,” John Bassitt said.

As it happened, an Akron coach was at the game and agreed. Bassitt redshirted his first year at Akron, but he made a fast impression on teammates such as Davidson and Romick, who were a couple of years older.

“Chris has always been what I’d call the alpha,” said Davidson, now a coach at Walsh University in Ohio. “He was a goofy, typical pitcher when he first got to college. But from Day 1 you could tell he had a fire in him that he wasn’t going to lose no matter what he was doing.”

Romick, now coaching at Denison University in Ohio, moved from closer to set-up man after Bassitt arrived, meaning the two spent a lot of innings sitting in the bullpen. Bassitt’s affinity for Red Bull energy drinks, well-known among his A’s teammates, might be traced to here. Romick said they’d take a supply of Mountain Dew and Red Bull down to the bullpen each game, waiting to pitch.

“I was a pretty relaxed, laid-back guy,” Romick said. “Chris probably — definitely — didn’t need the Red Bulls. But yeah, he hammered them anyway.”

A’s closer Liam Hendriks has said he thinks part of Bassitt’s success this season is a result of embracing “his inner weird — he embraced it fully, and everyone embraced him because of it.” This resonates with Davidson and Romick, who said Bassitt could be a practical joker as well as a teammate players gravitated toward.

“Whether it was cutting people’s shoelaces or trying to light guys’ shoelaces on fire in the bullpen, you name it, he’s probably done it,” Romick said.

Added Davidson: “He always had so much energy to where at times you felt like, man, how is this guy not tired? But as a pitcher it was great for him, because everybody fed off that energy.”

After being drafted, Bassitt recently said, he was “very energetic and very competitive” early in his career “but also immature where I let basically everything affect me.” In 2013, he became a full-time starter in the minors. After the 2014 season, the White Sox traded him to Oakland. He had Tommy John surgery in 2016 and says he “didn’t bounce back well” at first. He spent time as a hybrid starter-reliever — a role Bassitt resisted before committing last season and going 10-5 with a 3.81 ERA.

This season, Bassitt was 2-2 and had a 3.72 ERA before the A’s five-day layoff starting in late August. He said he used that time to throw several bullpen sessions and “manipulated some pitches around.” Per Brooks Baseball, he also threw nearly 10% fewer sinkers in September and upped the use of his cutter and four-seamer. He has since been the A’s most reliable starter.

“It’s a great story,” said Billy Beane, A’s vice president of baseball operations. “To come back (from Tommy John) and pitch at the level he is, is impressive. When we acquired him, we thought he had a chance to be in the rotation, and for him to be pitching in the top of the rotation in a situation like this is such a credit to him. I’m happy for him.”

During trying seasons, John Bassitt said, Chris “honestly kept it more quiet than you may think. He’s typically not a whiner.”

Romick and Davidson said a handful of former Zips including Bassitt are in daily contact by group text.

“I think the best thing about Chris, for us being his friends, is he’s very open, he’s very honest, even about himself,” Romick said. “The brutal honesty I think also helps him. But there was a lot of trying times for him.

“I don’t know if he got any help from us, to be honest. I would say the advice from us was, ‘Just pitch well and make it so they can’t not pitch you.’”

At this point, an A’s team with World Series hopes is not only pitching Bassitt, but leaning on him.

“I feel like I went for years kind of trying to prove myself and now there’s kind of expectations on my head,” Bassitt said. “I don’t mind the big expectations. I don’t care about that.

“But when I was trying to prove myself, when I was trying to stick in the big leagues, I was overdoing everything. I was overthrowing, I was walking a ton of guys, I was overthrowing off-speed. Just the confidence that everyone has in me has let me kind of take a deep breath and just relax and just pitch. And that’s basically it.”

Matt Kawahara covers the A’s for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @matthewkawahara

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